Authors: Ann M. Noser
I rush to reassure him. “I feel like I finally got to say goodbye to my dad. He would’ve been brought here. And someone like you would’ve taken care of him, respectfully, like we did with all the bodies today. I’m glad I finally got to see what happened.”
He opens his mouth, but I interrupt.
“Because now I finally know the truth.”
s bodies feed the Incinerator, Gus and I close the fasteners on the empty stretchers. With the pull of each strap, I feel a rip inside my chest saying goodbye to my father. The Handlers come and go, collecting the double-decker stretchers and rolling them back to the truck.
As flames devour the final body bag, Gus turns to pack the supply cart. He stuffs a wad of identification tags into a drawer and slams it shut with a clang. The tools snap into place in the top drawer. Gus’ key clicks to lock the cart. The Handlers grab the last stretcher and hurry off.
“Time to go,” Gus announces. “Help me push.”
The supply cart bounces across the rugged floor. Metal tools clink inside as we roll alongside the conveyer belt. Halfway to the end of the belt, the whole thing jerks to a stop. I run smack into it.
Gus yanks on the handle to no avail. “It won’t move. It must be caught on something. Have a look, will you?”
I peer underneath the cart. “The front wheel’s stuck in some sort of grate.”
Gus squeezes past me, jimmies the wheel, and pops it back out of the groove. “That should fix it. Let’s go.”
He steps back around as I peer between the metal slats. It’s pitch black down there. I can’t see a thing.
“What’s the grate for?” I ask.
“It’s a drain in case they have to turn on the emergency sprinklers.” He points overhead at extensive plumbing.
A Handler calls in from the exit. “We’re fully loaded.”
Gus waves. “We’re coming.”
We reach the transport truck where the Handlers load the supply cart for us.
Gus elbows me then gestures toward lights in the distance. “There’s the start of the Plant Production facilities.”
Glowing greenhouses stand in parallel rows, stretching far into the dark night. I envision myself working inside one, wearing a shiny, white laboratory jacket over green scrubs, watching as seedlings grow into fruit trees in fast motion. A lost dream. But with every loss there is a gain. There would be no Gus for me in Plant Production Sciences. I would be one worker out of a hundred, probably nobody special or important.
I clear my throat. “How many greenhouses are there?”
“I don’t know. Must be hundreds of them. Maybe more.”
“They seem to go on forever.” I sigh. “I’d love to see inside one of them.”
A Handler slaps the side of the truck. “Get in. It’s time to go.”
Gus gestures for me to step into the vehicle first. We both sit, the door locks, and the truck rumbles off.
“I’ve been in there.” Gus nods in the direction of the Plant Production facilities.
“Really?” This is the first I’ve heard of this.
“Sure, lots of times. Ben worked there until he died nine years ago. Things have probably changed a lot since then.”
“What did he do?” How I wish I could’ve met him. Gus doesn’t usually talk much about his relationship with Ben. I never push the issue because I know how painful it is to think about someone you love when they’re gone and never coming back.
“Ben worked in research. He developed a lot of their most productive food lines.” Gus pauses to rub a hand over his tired face then mumbles. “Still it wasn’t enough for them.”
I suddenly feel like I don’t know Gus at all. “What are you talking about?”
His eyes flicker toward mine then away. “This is a very touchy subject for me.”
Before I can stop myself, my gaze scans the back of the truck for hidden surveillance.
Gus chuckles. “Don’t worry. No one bothers listening to what the dead have to say. Nobody can hear us in here.”
I raise my eyebrows, not sure I believe this.
“I’ve checked this truck over a million times. Never found a thing. ‘Course you’re usually not with me, and nobody’s interested in listening to an old man talk to himself. That’s one benefit of getting old and never retiring. I’ve been doing this job for too long for anyone to care about me.”
My eyes widen. “You don’t want to be watched, either? I thought you liked The New Order.” Gus has never talked this way to me before. Of course, we’ve never met anywhere else other than work—where cameras monitor our every movement.
“I can appreciate what they’ve accomplished: clean energy, the end of war, equality independent of gender, race, or orientation.” Gus examines his hands. “But…”
“But what?” I lean closer.
Gus chokes out his next words. “They wouldn’t allocate Ben any more pain meds. At the end, when his suffering was the worst, he’d used up his Lifetime Medical Allowance. And mine as well. Which is why I can never get sick.” He turns to me, smiling weakly. That’s Gus for you, still making jokes when his heart is breaking.
“He died of pancreatic cancer, right? That’s really painful, isn’t it?”
His eyes well with unshed tears. “I’d taken him home by then to save on hospital beds. It wasn’t fair to the others, they said… but he preferred to die at home, anyway, looking out the window.”
“How did he manage without pain meds?”
Gus pauses. “He didn’t. I found another way—the Underground Market.”
“Did you really?” I whisper. “You could’ve gotten into so much trouble.”
His eyes turn cold. “You’d do the same for someone you loved.”
Now, it’s my turn to pause. “Yeah. You’re right. I would.”
He smiles only a little. “I know you would.”
I lean against the wall of the truck, fiery images of the Incinerator flashing through my mind. After ten minutes pass by, I yawn.
“Poor little Silvia. You’ve been up too long. If you lean into the bench like so”—he demonstrates the position—“you can sleep without much chance of falling off.” Within minutes, Gus’s soft snore adds to the metallic lullaby of the rattling tool cart and double-decker stretchers.
But I can’t sleep. My mind races. Gus sounded just like Dad tonight. I wonder if he goes to “meetings,” too?
My heart clenches. I’d never survive if I lost them both.
he transport vehicle stops with a jolt, flinging me to the floor. I grit my teeth and brush the debris off my hands then rub my banged up knees.
“Are you hurt?” Gus stands and offers me a hand.
“Just my pride.” I stand as the locks pop, and the back door swings open. The double stretchers clank down the ramp and across the floor as the Handlers unload them in a rush.
“You look exhausted.” Gus puts an arm around me, leading me into Mortuary Sciences.
Half-asleep, I lean against his shoulder, grateful to have someone taking care of me for once. He escorts me into his tiny office tucked between the main prep area and storage. The room is barely big enough for his desk, computer chair, couch, and bookshelves. Large windows look out into the prep room.
He smiles kindly. “Why don’t you catch a few more hours of shut eye then work a short day before heading home? You can start your day off a half day early.”
“But where are you going to sleep? Don’t you want the couch?”
Gus shakes his head and hands me a thin blanket. “No, I’m perfectly happy with my chair.”
I drop down and stretch out on the sofa, glancing around at the familiar surroundings. Maps, thumbtacked into floor-to-ceiling bulletin boards, cover the walls. Gus is as crazy about maps as he is about rock ‘n’ roll. Some of his maps are of real places such as the Museum of Fine Arts. My favorites are the story worlds like Narnia and Florin. There are even maps of places that used to exist like old state forests and wildlife areas. Arrows and lines are drawn across each map, leading me to nowhere and everywhere all at once. My sleepy gaze follows these imaginary paths until I fall asleep.